Human rights organizations and activists have welcomed the life imprisonment awarded to an Indonesian soldier accused of murdering four Protestant Christians in the strife-torn Papua region.
A military court in Jayapura, the capital and largest city of the Indonesian province of Papua, sentenced Major Helmanto Francis Dakhi to life imprisonment and dismissed him from the military on Jan. 24.
He is one of the five soldiers accused of the "premeditated murder" of four Protestant Christians in Nduga, Mimika Regency of central Papua province, in August last year.
Father John Djonga, a prominent human rights activist in the Jayapura diocese, said the verdict "signals that there are efforts to take firm action against the state apparatus who are perpetrators of crime in Papua."
"This is at least a bit of relief that there is a government commitment to protecting the rights of the Papuan people," he told UCA News on Jan. 26.
The punishment is the heaviest so far given by the military court to the security officers who commit atrocities in the easternmost region of the country. The life imprisonment is harsher than the military prosecutor's demand for a four-year prison term for Major Dakhi.
Major Dakhi told the judge that he was planning to file an appeal to the higher court.
Four other soldiers are currently under trial, while another person died last month.
Indonesia maintains a large military presence in the resource-rich but underdeveloped easternmost region of Papua, where conflict between the army and the pro-independence separatists has claimed thousands of lives.
The victims' dismembered bodies, packed in sacks, were dumped in the river.
Father Bernard Baru, chairman of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Augustinian Order in Papua, said execution of the verdict is also important as it is awarded by a military court.
He said that the verdict still did not meet the demands of civil groups which wanted the case to be tried by a civil court.
"Don't let this verdict only improve the image of the state in the public eye. We want the soldier [Major Dakhi] to be imprisoned in the Papua region so that he can be monitored," Father Baru told UCA News.
"Our reason is that their [soldiers'] brutal actions are criminal, not in the context of carrying out their duties as state apparatus," he said.
Atnike Nova Sigiro, chairwoman of the National Human Rights Commission, welcomed the verdict in a statement on Jan. 25. "We hope that this verdict can signal a step forward in upholding human rights in Papua," she said.
Aptoro Lokbere, brother of Arnold Lokbere, one of the victims, told local news portal Jubi, "A life sentence is appropriate, given what the convict did to our family members."
The military court's verdict was met with surprise as the Indonesian government acquitted a soldier in December last year over the 2014 shooting of four Christian students in a case known as the Paniai shooting.
A former Dutch colony, Papua declared independence in 1961, but Indonesia annexed the territory soon. An independence referendum that followed was widely manipulated in favor of Indonesia.
Local residents of Iwaka village in Mimika district found the bodies of Arnold Lokbere, Irian Nirigi, Lemanion Nirigi, and Atis Tini in floating bags on the Pigapu River on Aug. 26.
The five soldiers had targeted their Christian victims accusing them of having links with the separatists and allegedly killed them on Aug. 22 in the guise of selling weapons to them.